March 6, 2017 By: Jacques Billeaud, The Associated Press
PHOENIX — A judge on Monday awarded $2.5 million to a military veteran who said that his now-terminal cancer would have been curable had the Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix diagnosed it sooner.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Burns ruled a nurse practitioner who found abnormalities in Steven Harold Cooper’s prostate during an examination in late 2011 at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center had breached the standard of care by failing to order more testing and refer him to a urologist.
Instead, Cooper learned 11 months later from a VA doctor that he had stage-IV prostate cancer. The day after receiving the diagnosis, Cooper sought treatment from a private doctor.
“There’s no question Mr. Cooper has suffered,” Burns said, noting earlier that the nurse practitioner should have recognized the asymmetric quality of Cooper’s prostate was a possible sign of cancer.
Phoenix was the epicenter of a scandal in which whistleblowers revealed that veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year. An investigation by the VA’s office of inspector general into the wait-time scandal concluded that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care. The scandal led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and granting veterans easier access to treatment outside the VA.
But there were no direct references to the wait-time scandal made in Burns’ decision and during arguments by Cooper’s attorneys at a weeklong trial.
Cooper held his wife’s hand and nodded in agreement as Burns read her decision aloud in a packed courtroom. Many spectators clapped when the judge finished reading the decision.
“We didn’t need a penny,” Cooper said outside of court. “We needed a verdict that showed that the quality of care is substandard at the Phoenix VA.”
Burns said Cooper, who served nearly 18 years in the Army before his honorable discharge in 2007, had undergone mental and physical pain as a result of surgeries and therapies related to his medical condition. She also said Cooper can no longer work and has lost dignity and some of his enjoyment in life.
The life expectancy for Cooper, now 46, is believed to be five years.
Lawyers defending the VA had said the nurse practitioner didn’t turn up any indications of cancer during the initial examination and noted that Cooper didn’t complain of urinary symptoms during the appointment.
The attorneys for the government also said it was impossible to say whether Cooper’s cancer would have been confined to his prostate around the time of his initial appointment in 2011.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which defended the VA in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the verdict.